Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Book Review: Jonathan Lethem

Two lesser-known books by Jonathan Lethem, author of Motherless Brooklyn and Fortress of Solitude.

Gun, With Occasional Music
Harvest Books, 2003 (reprint; originally published 1994)
Paperback, 271 pages

Fans of Raymond Chandler and Philip K. Dick will enjoy this hard-boiled science-fiction story. The novel is told in the first person by a Marlowe-type detective, Conrad Metcalf, who gumshoes his way around a futuristic East Bay, California. To solve his case, Metcalf must navigate the usual obstacles (femme fatales, bent cops) as well as some new ones: designer pharmaceuticals, animals who've evolved the capacity for speech, and the comically disturbing "babyheads," about which let me say no more. The prose is occasionally uneven, but this seems intentional, part of the narrator's actual voice (and a spoof on genre dialogue). The plot sometimes meanders, but no more than in Chandler, and again this seemed intentional. As in Chandler, the atmosphere is so rich you don't mind taking the long way round.

The Disappointment Artist: Essays
Vintage, 2006
Paperback, 160 pages

This short book of autobiographical essays is worth reading if you're a student of Lethem, or if you share his enthusiasms (such as comic books or Philip K. Dick). The confessional style hit me over the head a few too many times. I also have to admit that I seldom enjoyed teenaged Jonathan's company. By the end, however, the author's adolescent frailties came more subtly and sympathetically into focus in relation to his mother's death---a tragic death, from brain cancer, when Lethem was just 13.

Up to What Point?

This post is about the abortion debate, an atypical subject for me but I'll be writing about it in relation to my customary concerns about quantitative thinking. All I want to say about it is that whenever I try to follow the debate, I become frustrated by the vague propositions people use to frame the question. Here's an example, a graph from Pew:

The poll asks, "Do you think abortion should be legal or illegal in all or most cases?" The trouble with this is that there's no time axis in the question. I think for a large fraction of people---not everyone, certainly, but for a significant number of people---their actual views about this question depend strongly on how far along the pregnancy in question happens to be.

For a significant number of people the answer is, "Legal up to a point"---which makes it important to ask, "Up to what point?" But none of the polls seem to ask this question.

For each n = 1, 2, 3, ..., what percentage of Americans would outlaw abortion-on-demand in week if they could do so? Is there any research on this?

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Notes from a cross-country drive

From Vermont to Detroit and back, October 2011

The meteor flew from left to right, halfway above the horizon, leaving behind an incandescent green trail that measured the width of my windshield. There was a sense of nearness, as if it weren't more than a couple of thousand feet high. The meteor moved more slowly than any I'd ever seen. In the end, the long green line forked into two dull-orange tracks: the meteor exploding in two. The pieces were extinguished, and the sky went black again.

Sitting on Scott's back deck, looking out over his neighbors' houses toward the flat horizon, I saw in the middle-distance a rank of towering maples, their huge canopies darkening to silhouettes as the evening fell. I'd forgotten about the ancient maple trees that still stand in the Detroit suburbs, like woody pins on a giant map.

The cornfields along my drive were being cut down to stubble. Good time of year to be a bird of prey. I saw plenty of falconiformes swooping down, coming up, or perching on fence-posts. Many held mice, or unidentifiable tasty-bits in their talons.

Passed through Ontario's level farmlands at one or two in the morning. A clear, cold sky had drawn vapor from the ground. Fog bunched itself in the hollows and lay roped across the land in silver skeins. Intermittently, all was white as my car pierced one of the swirling banks.

The beautiful weather in Detroit has followed me, and it's just the time to be tooling around the back-roads. The clouds are whipped cream and the hills are giant heaps of colored popcorn.

Concerning the meteor, I later searched the Web for similar reports and found these.